THE GODLESS BOUGH
BY OSCAR YUILL
BY OSCAR YUILL
While an atheist, C.S. Lewis thought he’d been reading Spencer, Milton, Dryden, etc. ‘with the point left out’. The point was Christianity, and it had been left out because atheists apparently live life ‘in a whirl of contradictions’. He then describes a feeling of ‘overwhelming joy’ upon reading the Hippolytus of Euripides. Fancying that every desire must have a corresponding object, he says that Joy’s object is the transcendent, which he calls God.
I sympathize with Lewis’s predicament. English poetry from Chaucer to at least the beginning of the 18th century could take the Christian framework for granted. Even at its most impish and illicit—in Donne especially—the Canon points always to its seminal crime: ‘Wherein could this flea guilty be | Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?’ I would be a dull poetaster not to wonder at those alien assumptions of Genesis, Job, and John.
So, what would Lewis have said about those for whom Lucretius and Hardy and Housman furnish verse just as nourishing? I suspect he would have echoed Chesterton, whom Lewis says ‘baptized’ his intellect (surely rather a full immersion). He would have said that the pagan poets were paving the way to Christ. But a glance at the mental and moral gymnastics with which Christian scholars must confront the legacy of Hellenism shows that this answer will not do. There have always been, as Pascal put it, those who cannot believe. We—if I may use the plural pronoun—think the pillars of the Parthenon will outlast Sodom’s pillar of salt. The Earth’s true age of six billion years is more wonderful than six thousand. The Hubble Telescope is more awe inspiring than any burning bush, from which Yahweh garbles the tautology that he is what he is.
The first step in defending atheists’ claim to poetry is a negative one. We must reclaim the numinous from the clutches of clerics, and the supernatural from the assumption that it exists. There is no question, for instance, of Lucretius’ invoking Mars and Venus because he believed in them. Nor did the Dryads need exist for Keats to deck his boughs with them. Lord Alfred Douglas—known to most only as Oscar Wilde’s lover ‘Bosie’ but a great poet in his own right—wrote affecting religious sonnets while still as much an atheist as his despicable father. Without belief in them, religions have little else to bequeath besides an internally consistent, but beautiful and mysterious, iconography. The atheist is free to use such symbols as means to a less dogmatic end. If she is accused, still, of missing the point, she might reply that the point was never there and that, in any case, she has points of her own to make.
The second step is then a positive one. Materialism is its own mystery. In lacking metaphysical comfort, atheists must turn more often to the human subject. Salvation comes, if at all, from the heart and not the host. When they suffer, they do not rest ‘Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I | Had willed and meted me the tears I shed,’ since Time and Fate, those ‘Purblind Doomsters had as readily strewn | Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain’ (Thomas Hardy, ‘Hap’).
We heathens also have more ahead of us than before us. The Christian creation myth, to take one among thousands, has had its Milton. Christ has been, in verse, a king, a lover, a friend, playing in ‘ten thousand places, | Lovely in limb, and lovely in eyes not his | To the father through the features of men’s faces’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’). Equally lovely words have been used to describe Apollo, Hyacinthus, and Narcissus. But the story, the fact, of the evolution of life on earth—of which we form a slither—still awaits its epic. Lucretius came as near to it as was possible in 55 BC. Even so, he was right about atoms, and so came closer to Keats’s ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ than any holy book.
And yet, for some, the absence of a divine authority is no cause for any earthly rejuvenation of the kind Nietzsche extols. There is no lightning, no bridge, no ascent to the heady mountain air. Despair is the most common reaction to the death of god. ‘I wish I could believe,’ runs the old refrain. And so we stage a funeral:
‘O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?
Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.
And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we imaged we believed,
‘Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.
And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?
I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once prized.’
—Thomas Hardy, ‘God’s Funeral’
It would be a mistake not to treat God’s funeral as a crisis. There has never been so many pall-bearers. But Hardy’s poem is evidence that the godless must still confront the great questions of life and death, and in a language no less sweet--
For as physicians, when they seek to give
Young boys the nauseous wormwood, first do touch
The brim around the cup with the sweet juice
And yellow of the honey, in order that
The thoughtless age of boyhood be cajoled
As far as the lips, and meanwhile swallow down
The wormwood's bitter draught, and, though befooled,
Be yet not merely duped, but rather thus
Grow strong again with recreated health:
So now I too (since this my doctrine seems
In general somewhat woeful unto those
Who've had it not in hand, and since the crowd
Starts back from it in horror) have desired
To expound our doctrine unto thee in song.
Soft-speaking and Pierian, and, as 'twere,
To touch it with sweet honey of the Muse -
If by such method haply I might hold
The mind of thee upon these lines of ours,
Till thou dost learn the nature of all things
And understandest their utility.
This is a more innocuous image than coercive hellfire, as Lucretius must have known when he wrote: ‘Tantum religio potuit sudere malorum.’ I would never stoop, of course, to suggesting that the faithful are united in their propensity to evil, or in encouraging evil; only that the more certain is anyone of their worldview, the more likely are they to kill for it.
Theologians such as Alister McGrath can insist on the intellectual richness of Christianity all they like—to an extent, I’d agree. But it doesn’t change that for most of the Church’s history the pulpits have billowed lies, sold fears, and gated knowledge only available now because a handful of freethinkers had the guts to snatch the key. It should be remembered that the Renaissance coincided with the monk Poggio’s discovery, in a Florence monastery in 1417, of the only surviving copy of De Rerum Natura. Admittedly atoms in the void do not appear to be a good subject for poetry. Epicureanism was reviled in its day for this, and other, reasons. That didn’t stop visitors to The Garden, on the outskirts of Athens, enjoying symposiums just as foundational as Plato’s. Judaism can thank these wine-filled soirees for the Passover; Christianity for the wine at Cana; and both might as well acknowledge the materialism which was their subject.
In any case, re-discovering Lucretius changed everything. It put pleasure before asceticism, natural laws before divine whim, and atoms before celestial beings. ‘All things keep on in everlasting motion, | Out of the infinite come the particles, | Speeding above, below, in endless dance.’ ‘Don’t think our eyes, | Our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead | with. Don’t suppose our thigh | bones fitted our shin bones and our shins our ankles so | that we might take steps… All such interpretation puts the cart before the horse.’ If Poggio had known the magnitude of his discovery, he might have said, as Freud said to Jung on approaching New York Harbour, ‘Don’t they know we are bringing them the plague?’
The genome, phenome, neutrino, meme, and chromosome shall have their Milton. Until then, they are in themselves a kind of poetry. The cast of devils and jinn, angels and cherubs, gods and holy ghosts are characters in a story that any poet can tell. Let it not be said, however, that leaving them backstage detracts from stories which have had far less air-time in their brief and persecuted history.
The atheist—though I prefer humanist—we may say of friends that, ‘their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.’ Of the skylark: ‘That from Heaven, or near it, pourest thy full heart | In profuse strains of unpremeditated art’ (whose author, Shelley, wrote both ‘A Refutation of Deism’ and ‘The Necessity of Atheism’). Of nature: ‘heartless, witless nature, | Will neither care nor know | What stranger’s feet may find the meadow | And trespass there and go, | Nor ask amid the dews of morning | If they are mine or no’ (A.E. Housman, ‘Last Poems: XL’).
In the face of Lewis’s insult to their integrity, atheists can, and do, invoke the full litany of human loves, virtues, and frailties in their poetry and in their lives. And, what’s more, atheists have at least the benefit of rejecting absolute certainties—a noble mystery, and the beginning of any good symposium.